When life-saving radiation turns deadly

Walt Bogdanich of the NY Times followed up on reports of radiation overdoses for cancer patients in Florida and Philadelphia. He found horrific medical errors and little oversight. His story ran on Sunday, 1/26.

Americans today receive far more medical radiation than ever before. The average lifetime dose of diagnostic radiation has increased sevenfold since 1980, and more than half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy. Without a doubt, radiation saves countless lives, and serious accidents are rare.

But patients often know little about the harm that can result when safety rules are violated and ever more powerful and technologically complex machines go awry. To better understand those risks, The New York Times examined thousands of pages of public and private records and interviewed physicians, medical physicists, researchers and government regulators.

The Times found that while this new technology allows doctors to more accurately attack tumors and reduce certain mistakes, its complexity has created new avenues for error — through software flaws, faulty programming, poor safety procedures or inadequate staffing and training. When those errors occur, they can be crippling.

While the Times stories are about radiation therapy, Neuroradiologist Michael Lev of Massachusetts General Hospital argues for quality assurance to CT scans in the current American Journal of Neuroradiology

Because of incorrect settings on the CT scanner console, more than 200 patients over a period of 18 months received radiation doses that were approximately 8 times the expected level. While this event involved a single kind of diagnostic test at 1 facility, the magnitude of these overdoses and their impact on the affected patients were significant. About 40% of the patients lost patches of hair as a result of the overdoses.

This episode highlights the importance of CT quality assurance programs

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